At a family get-together some years ago, my brother Pete despondently asked, “What have I done with my life? I haven’t really accomplished anything.” Those gathered immediately demurred, pointing to his two youngest children seated at the table. This effectively quashed exploration of a valid and important inquiry. Was “having” children enough of a raison d’être for my brother? The simplest creatures on earth breed—ought we to be content with this, or are we after more? What are our children for?
1. Several women have wanted me to impregnate them, but for various reasons none have succeeded. My first brush with potential fatherhood came at the age of twenty-eight when Barbara asked me directly. At the time I was in a two-year relationship with Jonathan and Barbara had been involved with Janet a little longer.
“Janet’s baby crazy,” Barbara told me. “She really has to have one.” Her idea was for me to provide the sperm and for Barbara and Janet to raise the child, and I could be involved in the kid’s life to whatever extent I wished. This open-ended, low-responsibility set-up tickled a place in my mind, meshing with a fantasy of simply passing on my genes while neatly stepping around the messy business of parenting. I recognized that this is effectively what so many “absent” fathers did, whether they chose to remain in their offspring’s life or not. I judged myself for entertaining such a narcissistic notion, yet I was still attracted to the idea.
Jonathan was upset when I told him the plan, because he didn’t want me having sex with Janet. “We’re talking Lesbians here,” I told him. “Turkey baster—not intercourse.”
He still wasn’t thrilled. My having a child outside our relationship would, well, distract me from him. The allure of depositing my genes into a fertile repository and making my getaway wasn’t powerful enough to override the part of me that knew I would want to be involved in my child’s life. I didn’t feel prepared to be a good dad, and the disturbance the prospective infant was already causing between Jonathan and me was enough to tip the scale. I declined the flattering request. Childless, Barbara and Janet broke up within a year.
Five years later Jonathan and I considered adoption. We attended a workshop at the Gay Center. Will, the workshop leader, an adoptive father himself, explained that if we were persistent and could negotiate the paperwork and interviews, within two years we’d have a child. Over the next few months our resolve to adopt faltered and we didn’t follow through.
Three years later I got a call from Jan, my colleague at the Park Slope Food Coop. “I don’t know how to ask this except to come right out and say it,” Jan said. “Alyssa and I want to have a baby and we’re considering you as the father.” I was startled. I knew Jan only from work, and Alyssa I’d only met for about fifteen minutes at the Gay Pride March where I’d been dressed as a court jester; I made enough of an impression on Alyssa that she told Jan afterwards, “He’d make a great Daddy.”
This request/offer came with the hope that both Jonathan and I would be involved in parenting. The two couples met and we all spoke about what we each wanted from the situation and what we were willing to give to it. We all wanted to be a parent, but I sensed that the strongest desire came from Alyssa and myself. Rather than a clinical implantation of sperm, Jan and Alyssa fantasized a ritual in which Jonathan would help me ejaculate, then pass my sperm on to Jan who would then place it into Alyssa. Beautiful, I thought, all of us involved in the fertilization. But Jonathan was prudish about doing something sexual in front of others, and the proposed modifications weren’t to his liking, so that plan was nixed.
There were more serious obstacles—my hesitancy to get an HIV test prior to donating sperm, for instance. I’d never had the test because I thought them unnecessary, inaccurate and, more importantly, a political tool with dire ramifications, responsible for the deaths of thousands. I tried convincing the women that my health was apparent, and offered to take other tests demonstrating I was not infected with a deadly virus, but the mythology of AIDS latency is a strong one, and Jan especially was adamant about a test for HIV. I said I would consider getting tested—I wanted the baby that much.
But our plan to bring new life into the world was interrupted by our lives. I began an extramarital affair with Leslie and at virtually the same time Alyssa started an affair with Tim. Childless, Jan and Alyssa broke up within a year.
Leslie told me, before we got sexually involved, but when it was obvious that I was pursuing her, that she’d had a fantasy of having a baby for Jonathan and me. In her scheme Jonathan and I would be the parents but she, as birth mother, would be intimately involved. “I guess I was trying to figure out how I could fit into your life,” she said. Instead of the child, we had an affair.
A curious thing happened when Leslie and I had sex. My body wanted to make a baby. My mind knew better. Once we were involved, Leslie got over her baby fantasy, thus we always used a condom. And yet, as I pumped and glowed, I felt the urge to take off the condom...to give her my seed. I was shocked and appalled at my body’s craving. My instinct was base and ignorant, but it was loud and insistent.
My affair with Leslie was discovered, and I chose to continue my marriage and my affair. Childless, within a year I had broken up with my mistress and my husband.
Heather told me that at the beginning of our relationship she wanted to have my baby. And I, or at least my body, felt the same drive to procreate as I had with Leslie. Heather’s father, watching me playing with her niece and nephew, said to her, “You should have kids with him.” Good sense and birth control once again prevailed. We each had too much to accomplish to stop to have children.
A few years ago another lesbian acquaintance made a preliminary inquiry as to my willingness to be a sperm donor for her lover and her. I stopped her mid-sentence and said, “Two other lesbian couples have asked me this and both times they broke up within a year. I don’t want to jinx you—please don’t ask me this!” They have since adopted a boy and remain happily coupled.
2. This history of “near-misses” with fatherhood is meant to demonstrate that for me the issue has been tortuous. Now, however, I actively choose not to have children. I have often wondered: does this make me selfish? Am I not willing to devote my energy to the work of raising a child because I’d rather be free to play? Does childlessness equal childishness?
If we truly seek to gain more than mere transmission and recombination of our genes with (what we guess to be) suitable partners, then we must look outside our genes; we must consider exogenetics.
It is arguable that the process of natural selection has ceased for humankind, and a new “unnatural” selection has commenced, with people opting out and opting in to procreation for variegated reasons having little or nothing to do with survival of the species. Genes are essentially living information, which get passed on efficiently, with the ability to create something new, once combined with another’s genes or when exposed to a mutagenic agent. There are other ways to pass down information to future generations, perhaps more effectively and with greater impact. I’ve identified at least four categories of exogenetic transmission humans employ, each more esoteric than the next.
The first category is Person-to-Person. We experience the world and teach others what we know—parent to child, teacher to student, peer to peer—and thus information is preserved. In this regard the raising of children is an exogenetic component to an otherwise genetic happenstance, for it is in the process of parenting that who we are and what we value are most essentially passed on to our children (for better or worse).
The next method of exogenetic transmission is through artifacts, beginning with the first cave painting and continuing through to the latest video game. In between lie all manner of arts, writing, music and objects. Increasingly sophisticated artifacts will no doubt emerge, as the digital age morphs into something new and, at present, unimaginable.
I ask myself: which is more valuable to humanity—the thirty-seven plays of William Shakespeare or his forty-six strands of DNA? Do we really believe that his clone would become a great playwright? The accretion of experiences is what makes a person, in combination with whatever genes are inherited (certainly I won’t declare genetics plays no role in who we become).
The third category of exogenetic transmission is “memes.” This term, coined by ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, denotes a cultural unit of information (whether a custom or idea) imparted verbally or by repeated action, from one mind to another. A meme is to a culture as a gene is to a person. Some examples of memes: popular songs & commercial jingles, catch-phrases, beliefs, the manner in which we celebrate Thanksgiving, clothing-fashions. Collections of individuals create a culture, and the individual parts of the culture consist of memes. Person-to-Person and the Use of Artifacts are both a large part of forging a culture, but where memes are concerned an individual’s contribution is secondary to the collective’s acceptance or rejection of their ideas. Mores trump morals.
The fourth, most esoteric (perhaps controversial) of my categories of exogenetic transmission is the Collective Unconscious, defined as a part of the unconscious mind, shared by humanity, which is the product of ancestral experience. Religion and morality would be contained in the Collective Unconscious as well as other archetypes (patterns of thought or symbolic imagery). I believe, unlike Jung, that the Collective Unconscious is a dynamic system with which we can and do interact—that new archetypes are created through our development. But, as in the case of memes, the individual’s contribution to this process is most often minimal or nonexistent—like ants building a colony, wherein “some” of the “hole” is greater than its parts.
As the categories broaden, the individual’s influence becomes increasingly diffuse. I’m certain better and more disciplined thinkers than myself will advance other categories and more complex concepts than I have described here.
With this array of means to “pass myself down” I cannot bemoan for too long the fact that my particular gene set will not move on—though since I have four nephews and a niece sharing a semblance of my structure (my brother and sister having garnered their genetic code from precisely the same pool as I), my general genetic info will continue. Outside of the egoistic act of cloning, there is always a simultaneous dissipation and augmentation of genes, since they must combine and share their fate with the other half of the zygote. It seems to me that exogenetic transmission actually holds better hope than mating for passing on a bit of my essence more clearly and wholly, and then allowing the receivers of that information to enrich and/or dilute it as they choose.
3. I recently found out that an older man in a building in which I work had passed away. We’d had brief, uncomfortable encounters in the hall and on the street. He was crotchety, but beyond that I’d not known anything about his life, or even his name. Through an announcement on the bulletin board in the hall I found out he’d been an art professor at Pratt Institute. A memorial was planned and a website devoted to his work was created. I found the testimonials on the website to be in sync with my experience of him. Professor G was a hard man—he “inspired” students by breaking them down and being nasty. I realized through these descriptions that I’d actually met him thirteen years prior when, as a model for art classes, I left Professor G’s class thoroughly disgusted by his treatment of his students and me.
The ever-so-brief biographical info on the website mentioned he’d been married from 1955-1965, and had begun teaching at Pratt in 1966. I imagine heartbreak from his divorce. I speculate whether ten years of the kind of arrogant condescension he meted out to his students was all his ex-wife could stand. I wonder if he became even more bitter after the break-up and threw his life into his art and students—several students commented on the website what a privilege it was when the Professor would invite them to lunch or dinner, but it seems to me he used them to fill up his life a bit. He was, in my experience, a lonely, fearful man, who used his position to bully.
A quote from an interview with Professor G: “...when you're lying stiff in a box and they put a lily across your chest, all that matters is the body of work you've left behind.” I’ve thought this at times, but I no longer agree. Every piece of advice, kind act, harsh word, each choice we make from the myriad of options which present themselves during the course of our lives, leaves traces and impressions upon the world. My work is a byproduct of and an important part of my life, but it does not supersede it. If I create great work but become miserable in the process, then this is not success, in my estimation. It is a considerable accomplishment for one’s work to inspire and edify those alive now and those to come, but if this edification does not include me then what, precisely, is the point? I hope to leave behind not only my work, but also my play. Love, I believe, is a benign contagion which creates its own momentum wherever it flowers. May my exogenetic descendants bask in it.